"Did that thing just swing ?" Edwardson asked, standing at the port, countless stars and a coupla nebulae floating a distance behind him. He'd never call it a dial, or a hand or anything remotely sensible. No, it was "that thing" with him, too damned good to call it the Attinson Detector like everyone else. Too fancy for that, Edwardson. And he was getting on everyone's nerves with it already.
"No. No it didn't. No. Not at all." Morse looked quite frazzled. He had been staring fixedly at the Attison Detector for over an hour, mostly not blinking for the interval. Now he blinked three times rapidly, and looked again. "Not a millimeter. It hasn't moved and it's not going to. Nope." His speech, quick, acute, trailed off into a mutter and then into some sort of wheezing. You could think him asleep, except for the strange look in his eyes.
"It's going to be alright." added Cassel, from behind the gunfire panel. And that was that. Cassel somehow managed to always soothe the team, he always put an end to their dysfunctional, talk-only dialogues. If he weren't there who knows where a system composed of one lieutenant first class Morse and one uncommissioned tech Edwardson would end up. In some sort of failure mode, for sure, in a positive feedback loop of disaster or other.
He was right, too. In point of fact the slender black hand of the indicator rested unwaveringly on zero. The ship's guns were ready, their black mouths open to the stars. A steady, barely audible hum filled the room. It came from the Attison Detector, and the sound was usually reassuring. It reinforced the fact that the Detector was attached to all the other Detectors, forming a gigantic network around Earth.
Then again, sometimes it'd play tricks on their nerves, their tired, sleepless minds. They'd think it stopped, and go through the emergency check procedures fifteen times in two hours, except it hadn't stopped at all, just, they had for some reason or another stopped hearing it, or convinced each other they had, or who knows. When confronted with the steady functioning of machinery at the boundries of its perception ranges, the inadequacy of the human physiology becomes acutely evident. Was that a barely audible hum or something you just imagined ? Who's to know...
"Why in hell don't they come?" Edwardson asked, still looking at the stars. "Why don't they hit?"
"Aah, shut up," Morse said. He had a tired, glum look about himself. High on his right temple was an old radiation burn, a sunburst of pink scar tissue. From a distance it almost looked like a misplaced decoration.
"I just wish they'd come," Edwardson said. He returned from the port to his chair, bending to clear the low metal ceiling. "Don't you wish they'd come?" Edwardson had the narrow, timid face of a mouse; but a highly intelligent mouse. One that cats did well to avoid.
"Don't you?" he repeated.
The other men didn't answer. They had settled back to their dreams, staring hypnotically at the Detector face.
"They've had enough time," Edwardson said, half to himself.
Cassel yawned and licked his lips. "Anyone want to play some gin?" he asked, stroking his beard. The beard was a memento of his Stars Academy days. Cassel maintained he could store almost fifteen minutes worth of oxygen in its follicles. He had never stepped into space unhelmeted to prove it.
Morse looked away, and Edwardson automatically turned to the indicator. This routine had been drilled into them, branded into their subconscious. They would as soon have cut their throats as leave the indicator unguarded.
"Do you think they'll come soon?" Edwardson asked, his brown rodent's eyes on the pale yellow dial. The men didn't answer him. After two months together in space their conversational powers were exhausted. They weren't interested in Cassel's undergraduate days, or in Morse's erotic conquests.
They were bored to death even with their own thoughts and dreams, bored with the attack they expected momentarily. They were bored of being bored, and too sick and tired of being bored to even consider not being boring. It's just not possible to do, it exceeds human capacity. Turns out that when confronted with the meaningless pointlessness of endlessness, the inadequacy of the muchly lauded human faculty of creativity becomes readily apparent.
"Just one thing I'd like to know," Edwardson said, slipping with ease into an old conversational gambit. "How far can they do it?"
They had talked for weeks about the enemy's telepathic range, but they always returned to it. There was no count to this recurring conversation, and no point to it, no reason to carry it - and yet there they were, carrying it. The whole ship, all eight hundred and fifteen thousand tons of metal and composite material pressing heavily on their shoulders, their skulls, their very nerves.
But still, as professional soldiers they couldn't get out of guard duty. Nor could they separate guard duty from boredom, nor would they escape the fate of all sentinels since before the feathered helmet came into fashion. So there they sat, speculating idly on the enemy, and his strategy, and his weapons, and so on. It was their shop talk.
"Well," Morse said wearily, "Our Detector network covers the system out beyond Mars' orbit."
"Where we sit," Cassel said, watching the indicators now that the others were talking.
"They might not even know we have a detection unit working," Morse said, as he had said a thousand times. Or maybe more.
"Oh, stop," Edwardson said, his thin face twisted in scorn. "They're telepathic. They must have read every bit of stuff in Everset's mind."
"Everset didn't know we had a detection unit," Morse said, his eyes returning to the dial. "He was captured before we had it."
"Look," Edwardson said, "They ask him, 'Boy, what would you do if you knew a telepathic race was coming to take over Earth? How would you guard the planet?'"
"Idle speculation," Cassel said. "Maybe Everset didn't think of this."
"He thinks like a man, doesn't he? What's so ingenious about hacking some ECG scanners together with duct tape ?"
"Syllogistic," Cassel murmured. "Very shaky."
"I sure wish he hadn't been captured," Edwardson said, waving his hand at the exhausted dead end Morse had started. The whole conversation had the air of defeated players trying to make sense of some brokenly translated import, after having tried all possible combinations. Even the wildest. Rope on box. Lever on screwdriver. Pane of glass on banana. Everything.
"It could have been worse," Morse put in, his face sadder than ever. "What if they'd captured both of them?"
"I wish they'd come," Edwardson said.
Richard Everset and C. R. Jones had gone on the first interstellar flight. They had found an inhabited planet in the region of Vega. They flipped for it, Everset went down in the scouter. Jones listened to his radio dispatches up in the ship. The recording of that contact had been broadcast thousands of time, for all Earth to hear, and memorize, and forget.
"Just met the natives," Everset said. "Funny-looking bunch. Give you the physical description later."
"Are they trying to talk to you?" Jones asked, guiding the ship in a slow spiral over the planet.
"No. Hold it. Well I'm damned! They're telepathic! How do you like that?"
"Great," Jones said. "Go on."
"Hold it. Say, Jonesy, I don't know as I like these boys. They haven't got nice minds. Brother!"
"What is it?" Jones asked, lifting the ship a little higher.
"Minds! These bastards are... nuts, man! Power-crazy little fuhrers over here. Seems they've hit all the systems around here, and they've—"
"I've got that a bit wrong," Everset said edulcorously. "They're really not all that bad."
Jones had a quick mind, a suspicious nature and good reflexes. He set the accelerator for all the Gs he could take and laid down on the floor while saying, "Tell me more."
"Come on down," Everset said. "These guys are all right. As a matter of fact, they're the most marvelous—"
That was where the recording ended with a spark of static, because Jones was pinned to the floor by twenty Gs' acceleration as he boosted the ship to the level needed for the C-jump. He broke three ribs getting home, but he got there.
A telepathic species was on the march. What was Earth going to do about it?
A lot of speculation necessarily clothed the bare bones of Jones' information. Evidently the species could take over a mind with ease. It seemed that they had insinuated their thoughts into Everset's head, turning his previous convictions on a dime, mid speech. They had possessed him with remarkable ease. How about Jones? Why hadn't they taken him? Was distance a factor? Or hadn't they been prepared for his sudden recollection of a prior engagement ?
One thing was certain - or if not certain then in any case a safe assumption. Everything Everset knew, the enemy knew. That meant they knew where Earth was, and how defenseless the planet was to their form of attack. It could be reasonably expected that they'd be on their way with all the haste of a horny teenager with a brand new car that finally learned the secret location of the sorority rush.
Something was needed to nullify their tremendous advantage. But what sort of something? What armor is there against thought? Supposedly there's no cave too dark, no mystery too deep, how do you escape another's thoughts ? Even should they be not quite human...
Pouch-eyed scientists gravely consulted their periodic tables.
And how do you know when a woman has been possessed? Although the enemy was clumsy with Everset, would they continue to be clumsy? Wouldn't they learn? Psychologists tore their hair and bewailed the absence of an absolute scale for humanity.
Of course, something had to be done at once. The answer, from a naive planet, was a naive one : build a space fleet and equip it with some sort of a detection-fire network. Because certainly you can shoot thoughts, and certainly you can measure divergence enough to distinguish an alien. It's all quite very scientific and definitely sophisticated.
This was done in record time - the planet was undergoing a global economic recession anyway, so the stellar war effort was certainly welcome. The Attison Detector was developed, a cross between a radar and the electroencephalograph, plus some lasers because one of the high ranking, thoroughly fossilized committee members loved the idea of lights moving.
Supposedly any alteration from the typical human brain wave pattern of the occupants of a Detector-equipped ship would boost the indicator around the dial. Even a bad dream or a case of indigestion would jar it a little, at least most of the times.
The drawback was that the ships had to be manned by typical human brains, which took a while - but eventually the scientists in charge managed to isolate a group of about eleven thousand very similarly minded men out of the millions that took the initial trials, and proceeded to fit the entire hot mess to them. Faster and cheaper than going the other way around : while the matter of whether these guys were or were not representative for humanity was expensive and ultimately unimportant, it was quite certain that once fitted to their particulars the Attinson would detect something or the other. It seemed altogether probable that any attempt to take over a human mind would disturb something. There had to be a point of interaction, somewhere.
Over three thousand spaceships, manned three to the ship, dotted the outer orbit, forming a gigantic threethousandaedron with Earth in the center. Over ten thousand men (not a single woman made it into this group) crouched behind gunfire panels, watching the dials on the Attison Detector. The unmoving dials of typical humanity.
"Do you think I could fire a couple of bursts?" Edwardson asked, his fingers on the gunfire button. "Just to limber the guns?"
"Those guns don't need limbering," Cassel said, stroking his beard. "Besides, you'd throw the whole fleet into a panic."
"Cassel," Morse said, very quietly. "Get your hand off your beard."
"Why should I?" Cassel asked.
"Because," Morse answered, almost in a whisper, "I am about to ram it right down your fat throat."
Cassel grinned and tightened his fists. "Pleasure," he said. "I'm tired of looking at that scar of yours." He stood up.
"Cut it," Edwardson said wearily. "We're here to watch the birdie, remember ?"
"No reason to, really," Morse said, leaning back. "There's an alarm bell attached." But he watched the dial.
"What if the bell doesn't work?" Edwardson asked. "What if the dial is jammed? How would you like something cold slithering into your mind?"
"The dial'll work," Cassel said. His eyes shifted from Edwardson's face to the motionless indicator.
"I think I'll sack in," Edwardson said.
"Stick around," Cassel said. "Play you some gin."
"All right." Edwardson found and shuffled the greasy cards, while Morse took a turn glaring at the dial.
"I sure wish they'd come," he said.
"Cut," Edwardson said, handing the pack to Cassel.
"I wonder what our friends look like," Morse said, watching the dial.
"Probably remarkably like us," Edwardson said, dealing the cards. Cassel picked them up one by one, slowly, as if he hoped something interesting would be under them.
"They should have given us another man," Cassel said. "We could play bridge."
"I don't play bridge," Edwardson said.
"You could learn."
"Why didn't we send a task force?" Morse asked. "Why didn't we bomb their planet?"
"Don't be dumb," Edwardson said. "We'd lose any ship we sent. Probably get them back at us, possessed and firing."
"Knock with nine," Cassel said.
"I don't give a good damn if you knock with a thousand," Edwardson said gaily. "How much do I owe you now?"
"Fifty nine Bitcents."
"I sure wish they'd come," Morse said.
"Golly! Want me to write a check?"
"Take your time. Take until next week." then turning to Morse "They'd better come, there's no other way he gets together that much hash anyway. Eddie's only way out is them coming." His name wasn't Edward, but they didn't care. Eddie can stand for Edwardson just as well.
"Someone should reason with the bastards," Morse said, looking out the port. Cassel immediately looked at the dial.
"I just thought of something," Edwardson said.
"I bet it feels horrible to have your mind grabbed," Edwardson said. "I bet it's awful."
"You'll know when it happens," Cassel said.
"Probably. He just couldn't do anything about it."
"My mind feels fine," Cassel said. "But the first one of you guys starts acting queer—watch out."
They all laughed.
"Well," Edwardson said, "I'd sure like a chance to reason with them. This is stupid."
"Why not?" Cassel wondered outloud.
"You mean go out and meet them?"
"Sure," Cassel said. "We're doing no good sitting here, wasting time."
"I should think we could do something," Edwardson said slowly. "After all, they're not invincible. They're reasoning beings."
Morse punched a course on the ship's tape, then looked up.
"You think we should contact the command? Tell them what we're doing?"
"Nah!" Cassel said, Edwardson nodding in agreement. "Red tape's pretty much all they're good for. We'll just go out and see what we can do. If they won't talk, we'll blast 'em out of space. Back before dinner anyway, they won't even notice we're gone."
Out of the port they could see the red flare of a reaction engine; the next ship in their sector, speeding forward.
"They must have got the same idea," Edwardson said.
"Let's get there first," Cassel said. Morse shoved the accelerator in and they were thrown back in their seats.
"That dial hasn't moved yet, has it?" Edwardson asked, over the clamor of the Detector alarm bell.
"Not a waffle." Cassel said reassuringly, looking at the dial with its indicator slamming back and forth against the stoppers either way.